“The arts are our soul. You cannot survive without the arts.”
These words spoken by the New York Indian Film Festival’s prestigious executive director, Aroon Shivdasani, filled the theater at the Perot Museum in Dallas on opening night of the Dallas-Fort Worth South Asian Film Festival. They presented a raw honesty that kicked off a weekend of love, adoration, and celebration of the arts.
On February 19, 2016, the DFW South Asian Film Festival began its second year. With a dazzling red carpet and opening night at the Perot Museum of Natural Science, followed by two days in the Angelika Film Center in Plano, TX, attendees saw a number of feature-length films and shorts. Though diverse in their stories, the films explored elements of South Asian culture, including everything from the desire to succeed to sexual assault to youthful independence.
Friday’s opening night showcased the film “Miss India America.” Saturday morning began with the short “I Say, Bhallaji” and the documentary “The Backward Class,” followed by two other documentaries, “Blue Like Me” and “Spaces Between.” Saturday afternoon kicked off with the much-anticipated “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi,” which left the audience awestruck while “Saankal” or “Shackle” was the choice for the women’s programming section. This was followed by the men’s programming, which included the short “Vanvaas” and the feature film “Umrika.” After an eventful after party Saturday night, the films began again Sunday at noon with family-friendly programming. Several kids accompanied their parents to the theater to watch the short “Supergirl” and the following feature film “Dhanak.” Next came the documentary “Amma & Appa,” followed by the much-anticipated closing film “Aligarh.”
All the films shown were brilliant and a true tribute to the creativity that lies in the South Asian diaspora.
[From Left to Right: BG DFW SAFF Team Sarah Khan, Faria Akram and Aditi Mehta]
Here’s a recap of some of our favorite screenings:
“Miss India America”
“Miss India America” is a funny, entertaining film that is perfect to watch at a movie night with friends or when you’re sipping that post-dinner chai with family. The film follows Lily Prasad (Tiya Sircar) succeeding at everything possible in life – that is until her boyfriend Karim (Kunal Sharma) dumps her for the reigning Miss India America. Hoping to get him back, Lily enlists in the Miss India America competition, confident her winning streak will not fail her until the beautiful Sonia Nielson (Hannah Simone) makes Lily think twice. The film is lighthearted, cleverly pulling humor out from typical teen scenarios (think Mean Girls-y sass levels) and Indo-American culture clashes (Bharatnatyam dance classes and white boyfriends don’t mix well). Throughout the amusing scenes, however, the film subtly brings up the most complex issues that we as South Asians in America – and as young girls, really, – can relate to. The pressure to triumph over everything, to make something of ourselves, to do all that without getting in over our heads. Directed by Ravi Kapoor, “Miss India America” is sweet, will encourage quite a few chuckles, and reminds us that it is both our successes and our failures that make up our true selves.
“Saankal,” on the other hand, takes a drastic turn away from light and cheerful. Set in a village in post-partition Rajasthan, India. “Saankal” explores the real-life malpractice of women in their twenties being forced to marry boys who hadn’t even hit puberty. The film follows the story of such couple, 26-year-old Abeera (Tanima Bhattacharya) and 11-year-old Kesar (Chetan Sharma), as they navigate their relationship together and the injustice brought to them by members of the village. Bhattacharya excels at depicting the resilient Abeera, who endures unimaginable struggles. She is a pillar throughout the entire film, depicting through expressions as equally as she does through words. Sharma also doesn’t falter in his portrayal of an emerging adult, confused and shocked by the horrors he witnesses in his village. The storyline is well put together and key at depicting the awful historical tradition that negatively affected several boys and young women.
One aspect the film sorely lacks, however, is a trigger warning. Certain scenes depicting sexual assault are shown so intensely that viewers may experience a range of unpleasant emotions. A trigger warning would protect viewers who may be negatively affected by some of the film’s content. This could easily be placed in the beginning of the film, next to the health warning about cigarettes and tobacco.
All in all, “Saankal” is a wonderful film highlighting social injustice that could improve the experience of its viewers with a trigger warning.
When Udai (Prateik Babbar) heads off to “Umrika,” his family in India continues to receive letters from him. When the letters stop coming, however, his younger brother Ramakant (Suraj Sharma) sets out to find his brother, and begins a journey of his own. “Umrika” explores the intricacies of familial relationships, a man’s dreams, and novelty of a foreign land. It’s a feeling several South Asian immigrants can relate to. Whether it’s the unknown America that we ventured to, the feeling where anything is possible if one works hard enough. Or for those of us already born here, it’s going back to our roots in South Asian countries and hearing relatives exclaim and gasp over rumors of America. There is something new and fascinating about this country, which draws us to and its name from our lips. It’s a name that Ramakant focuses on as he searches for his brother. In portraying Rama, Sharma does an impeccable job. In each scene, by just the tiniest of expressions, Sharma leaves no question about his immersion into his character. It comes across the screen as genuine as can be, which is even more impressive for someone who had no acting experience or training prior to “Life of Pi” (2012). Now studying film at NYU, Sharma’s performance leaves us in awe of his potential for future movies and more than satisfied with this one.
The main feature film on Sunday’s family-friendly event proved to be as magical and colorful as its name. “Dhanak” shows the relationship of 10-year-old Pari (Hetal Ghada) and her eight year old brother Chotu (Krrish Chhabria) living in Rajasthan, India. Chotu is blind, and for him, Pari is his entire world. When Pari sees an advertisement of Shahrukh Khan encouraging people to donate their eyes, she believes Khanis the only one who can help her brother and attempts to write letters to him. After the letters fail, Pari and Chotu take to the road to search for Khan themselves. The film is cute, fun, and pulls at your heartstrings as the sibling pair travels around Rajasthan to find a cure for Chotu. The way Pari cares for Chotu, and his humor and love for her, is something that any brother-sister duo can relate to. Ghada and Chhabria do a tremendously beautiful job of portraying the young characters. Their immense skill at such tender ages shine beautifully, and instills hope in us for their future films. Overall, “Dhanak” is a beautiful, family-friendly film that is a joy for anyone to watch.
The DFW South Asian Film Festival was a fantastic event that showcased truly remarkable and diverse range of talent present in the South Asian community. The Brown Girl staff is so excited to have been able to attend this event, and looks forward to seeing more great films come from South Asian members of the entertainment industry!
Faria Akram is a tiny and tough Texas native who’s about to graduate with a double major in journalism & advertising from the best school in the world, UT Austin. When she’s not trying to master the art of storytelling, she can be found choreographing dance routines in her room, planning adventures with friends or watching “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” for the thousandth time. She loves sparkling water, reading, meeting new people and sharing their stories with the world.
Weddings, huh? Talk about a stress fest. And for the bride, it’s like a 24/7 walk on eggshells. However, add in a paranoid and overprotective sister, and you’ve got a recipe for a completely different degree of drama. In “Polite Society,” Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) and her gang of clumsy pals take the phrase “till death do us part” to a whole new level as they plot to “steal” the bride — aka Ria’s own sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), during her shaadi reception. But with a wedding hall packed with guests, a mother-in-law from hell, and a groom with more shades of fraud than a rainbow, this heist is anything but smooth sailing.
It goes without saying but “Polite Society” comes with a cast of wacky characters, gut-busting one-liners, and an action-packed heist sequence, making it a must-watch for anyone who loves a good comedy. I mean who hasn’t dealt with some serious wedding drama, am I right?
Lead actress Kansara agrees wholeheartedly. “I definitely have!” she chuckles, as I catch up with her at Soho Hotel in London. Despite the rubbish weather outside, Kansara is a ray of sunshine with her infectious enthusiasm.
The minute I read the script, I thought to myself…wow, playing Ria is going to be one wild ride!
And wild is definitely the right word to describe her character. Ria is a British-Pakistani martial artist-in-training from London, determined to become a professional stuntwoman. Her sister, Lena, who dropped out of uni, often ends up being the guinea pig for filming Ria’s stunts for YouTube, including one lovingly dubbed “the fury.” She reveals
I’d never done martial arts before this film. The stunt training started from the day I got the role, and it was three to four times a week all the way until we finished filming. It was a seven-week period in total, and boy, was it physically demanding. Oh my God, I think I can add a whole new skills section to my CV! But on a serious note, it was so much fun and we had an amazing stunt team. They, including my stunt double, taught me so much. It was important to me to do my own stunts as much as possible, but also strike a healthy balance.
For South Asian women, who are often expected to be quiet and agreeable, all that punching and kicking on set must have been cathartic, right?
Honestly, it was like anger management at work! I got to kick and throw things around — it was the perfect balance.
What sets Kansara apart from other actors starting out in the industry is her ability to draw from her own life experiences to bring authenticity to her characters on screen. Her career began with a degree from UCL and a communications job at a pharmaceutical company. But today, her versatile range and unwavering commitment to her craft have propelled her to the forefront of British comedy, portraying defiant South Asian women we’d love to see in real life.
From my own experience as a South Asian woman, I’ve always been told to do what’s ‘proper’ and think twice before speaking up. Playing a character like Ria and putting myself in her shoes, I felt like I was doing and saying things that I wish I had done at her age. It was almost like living through her and speaking my mind about things I never did.
Without a doubt, every South Asian woman on this planet wishes she cared more about herself and less about what other people think.
Ria totally inspired me. If only I had her mindset when I was younger, my career path would have taken off way sooner instead of worrying about other people’s opinions.
The chemistry between the cast members on and off-screen is so apparent, especially the sisterhood between Ria and Lena. The wild adventures of a bride, and her paranoid maid of honour navigating through family drama, are bound to create some unforgettable moments on set.
We both confess our love and admiration for Nimra Bucha’s portrayal of Raheela, Lena’s evil mother-in-law and share a teenage fangirling moment:
I’m obsessed with that woman. There’s something terrifying yet ultra sexy about her character in “Polite Society” that’s mesmerising. I absolutely loved the dance sequence. As South Asians, we’ve all grown up watching Bollywood films and idolising Madhuri Dixit’s iconic dance moves. “Polite Society” gave me my Bollywood heroine moment, and it was a dream come true with the costumes and jewellery.
It’s definitely a unique experience for Kansara, considering her former career was worlds apart from entertainment. So, what advice does she have for aspiring actors who may secretly wish to pursue the same path, but are unsure of the next steps? Kansara advises, drawing from her character’s heist-planning skills.
I believe starting small and honing your craft is an underrated superpower. If you’re passionate about acting, make short-form videos, and build your portfolio. You never know who might be watching.
So, grab your popcorn and your sense of humour, and get ready for “Polite Society” — the film that proves that sometimes, the most polite thing to do is kick some butt and save the day. It released in cinemas on April 28th, and I highly recommend it.
“After so Long” is a poetry film created for Simha’s EP, which is streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. The poem was collaboratively written by Simha, a U.S. native, and Jae, who is based in India, during the 2020 lockdown. “After so Long” was recited by Simha and their parents. In 2022, I directed and produced the film through my studio, Star Hopper. “After so Long” premiered on Nowness Asia in March 2022.
This film is a worldwide collaboration among trans and queer south-Asian artists from the United States, India and Canada. It was recorded, shot and filmed during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.
Awake at 10 am but out of bed at noon,
I want to be here where I lose myself in these sheets
Glancing through half-shut eyes
At the gold pressing past my window
The glimmer remarks on the ledge of my bed
But the voices are so loud
Like dust collecting in the corner of my room
I am unaware to why I’m still here
With the chilling doubt of the breeze…
I’m swept into lucidity After so long
Mil rahi hoon mein aaj iske saang barso baad,
(Today, I’ll be meeting them after so long)
Koi paata nahi diya tune
(But with no destination sight,)
(What should I do?)
(Where should I go?)
Shayad agar mein chalne lagoon,
(Perhaps, if I keep walking)
Inn yaadon ki safar mein
(Down this road of memories)
Mujhe samajh mein ayega,
(I will find out)
Yeh rasta kahaan jayega,
(Where this road leads)
Inn aari tedhi pakadandiyon pe baarte hi jaana hai,
(Through the twists and turns of this winding roads, I must keep going on)
Mujhe mil na hain aaj uske saath,
(I wish to meet them today)
(After so long)
I feel like I’m retracing my footsteps
From these concrete stretches
To broken cement walls
Chips and cracks forge their way for new designs
I see the old abandoned buildings
That once held the warmth of bodies
Now just hold memories
Supporting the nature’s resilience
In vines and moss
After so long
Dhoondli shishe mein jaaga leli hai
(These isty mirrors have offered refuge)
Bikhri hui laatao ne,
(To these scattered vines)
Zameen pe uchi ghaas pe
(Amidst the tall grass stretching from the ground)
Lehrati kamsan kaliyaa
(The swaying little buds)
Bheeni bheeni khushboo bikhereti
(Spreading honeysuckle scent through the air)
Phir wahi mausam,
(I lose myself in reminiscing, the same season)
(The same heart)
(After so long)
Phir bhi mein chal rahi hoon aaj
(Still, I keep carrying on today)
Khudko khudse milane ke liye
(In the pursuit of my higher self)
Inn galiyo se guzarna hain aaj
(I must pass through these streets today)
Chaalte chaale jaana hai aaj
(I must keep going on today)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor paar
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor pe
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
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For any of us who have siblings, the relationship with them can be one of the most fulfilling ones. And also one of the most bloody frustrating. No one can quite stroke the fire like someone who knows you extremely well, or sometimes not, but have a familial bond with that neither one of you chose. In “Polite Society,“directed by Nida Manzoor, sisters Ria Khan and Lena Khan’s loving, sweet, and sometimes tumultuous relationship takes center stage.
Played delightfully by Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, respectively, the evolution of their relationship is one of the film’s greatest and simultaneously weakest points. It’s also pretty cool to see two South Asian actresses in an action-comedy movie — how refreshing it is to mention the art of choreography and praise it in regards to fight sequences vs. dance sequences for a film centered on two South Asian women — that itself shows progress.
Set in London, Ria is an aspiring stunt woman who already shows massive talent in martial arts. She looks up to her older sister Lena, who is enrolled in art school and, also holds remarkable potential in a somewhat less traditionally acceptable field. Their relationship starts off as supportive and sweet with no inclinations of jealousy or resentment that sometimes plagues sisterly bonds. But this also means that they are quite protective of one another, almost to the detriment of their well wishes for each other.
This all happens when Lena gets engaged after dropping out of art school. Ria feels betrayed. They were supposed to be on this journey together in fighting for their dreams. Ria decides that she knows what’s best for her sister and enlists the help of her friends to rescue the damsel in distress from her own wedding. Her deep animosity towards the prospect of Lena getting married is also fueled by Lena’s fiancé and his mother acting extremely suspiciously. The twist that ultimately brings the two sisters back together is both shocking and weirdly somewhat progressive in the motive behind the villain’s origin story. But the twist, unfortunately, is too ambitious for the movie as it tacks on another genre and theme earnestly, but still clunkily.
“Polite Society” tackles not only what it means to fight for one’s dreams but also what it means to have just one ardent supporter. As Lady Gaga famously said, “There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you but all it takes is one and it just changes your whole life.” Well, Ria’s Bradley Cooper was her very own sister who seemed to abandon her, and her faith in her, when she chose a different path. For Lena, the film opened up the question of marriage and the weight it bears in the life of a South Asian woman. Ria’s lack of understanding of the pressure it places on Lena is the start of the change in their relationship — the start of Ria’s coming of age and the start of Lena settling firmly into her adulthood.
Standouts from the cast include Ria’s best friends, played by Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, who commit to the story and characters with such hilarity and conviction. They add the lightheartedness and playfulness the film needs, and it is refreshing that never once do they use Ria’s cultural background as a way to make fun of her or dismiss her.
It is also heartening to see Lena and Ria’s parents being some of the most supportive South Asian parents seen on screen. At the end of the day, it is not the external family pressure that impacts the decisions made by the sisters but rather their own satisfaction, or lack thereof, with their own lives that become the driving force of their actions.
“Polite Society” is written and directed by a South Asian woman for South Asian women, and is definitely worth a watch when it releases in theaters this April.